Double Trouble: Louisville’s Carlik Jones & David Johnson form the ACC’s top backcourt

Roster management is arguably the most important task for college basketball coaches, especially as the basketball landscape continues to shift. This is why the addition of Carlik Jones was so critical for Chris Mack and Louisville.

The Cards entered the 2019-20 season with a deep roster, one that checked a lot of boxes. After going through the pre-draft process in 2019, Jordan Nwora elected to return for his junior season. Steven Enoch flirted with the NBA Draft a year ago, too, but also decided to head back for a redshirt senior season. Louisville was poised for big things in 2020.

By all accounts, Louisville had a really good season, too. The Cards finished the abbreviated campaign with a record of 24-7 (15-5 ACC) and the No. 12 offense in the country, in terms of adjusted efficiency. Louisville played with balance, and finished the season as a top-10 team in adjusted efficiency margin.

Leaning into the veteran team narrative, Louisville also ranked 34th nationally in weight experience, according to KenPom.

On the downslope of a cancelled season, though, this is one of the things that stings most for a talented, experienced roster: an ending without closure. Louisville isn’t unique in this regard; plenty of players and programs, especially those with Final Four aspirations, are dealing with this dissonance.

However, even as the program gets ready to flip over, with lots of talented headed out of the door, Mack and Louisville have a foundation for the 2020-21 season, which starts with one of the best backcourts in the country: David Johnson and Carlik Jones.

(Note: Jones loves that little between-the-legs step-back dribble. It’s rather useful in terms of space creation.)

Turnover Changes

Turnover is (obviously) on the horizon for Louisville. Nwora is headed to the NBA; a trio of fifth-year seniors, led by Dwayne Sutton, the ACC’s ultimate Swiss Army knife, will depart, too. Replacing Ryan McMahon’s range shooting — 182 career 3-pointers (39.5 3P%) — and Enoch’s interior presence (49.1 FG% on post-ups) will be no small feat, either.

The loss of McMahon and his movement shooting capabilities (60.6 eFG% on catch-and-shoot FGA) — and the half-court spacing it helped create — is a real blow. Louisville, which ranked 12th nationally in spot-up efficiency this season (1.06 points per possession), will have to search for new secondary shooting options.

For the third time in three years under Mack, Louisville will enter a season with a different starting backcourt. Along with McMahon, veteran guards Darius Perry (100 games, 40 starts) and St. Joe’s graduate transfer Fresh Kimble (115 career games) will depart, too. After three seasons and a coaching change while in a Louisville uniform, Perry entered the NCAA transfer portal in March; he has plenty of high-level suitors.

This, however, is an opportunity for Louisville: the slate is clean in the backcourt. And it’ll be up to Jones, Johnson and Charles Minlend — another talented grad transfer guard — to deliver.

(After some strong midseason draft buzz, Johnson elected to return for his sophomore season. Malik Williams filed paperwork with the NBA’s Undergraduate Advisory Committee, but didn’t declare for the draft.)


What Carlik Jones brings to the table

Named the Big South Conference Player of the Year in 2020, Jones continues to rapidly ascend. Jones already has over 1,500 career points (15.7 per game), 400 assists (4.7 per game) and 100 3-pointers. Over the last three seasons of college basketball, only seven other players have hit those combined benchmarks, including Payton Pritchard, RJ Cole, Cassius Winston and Anthony Cowan.

The 2019-20 season was his finest work, though. Jones improved his play across the board; he produced noticeable gains in usage rate (31 percent), assist rate (37 percent) and effective shooting (54 eFG%). As his usage jumped, so, too, did his efficiency (8.4 BPM), including a true shooting rate that rose to 59 percent.

Jones listed at 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, but he’s a power guard and he plays with force — stronger than his listed frame. Jones got to the line more frequently this season: a whopping 7.4 FTA per 40 minutes (81.4 FT%). He also shot the long ball at a career-best rate, too: 40.4 percent.

As a result, Jones was the only player in the country this season to finish with 30 percent usage, 30 percent assist rate and 40 percent 3-point shooting. Going back to the 2007-08 season, only six other players — including No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz and Jimmer Freddette — can say the same.

Jones was also one of only 13 Division I players, 6-foot-2 or shorter, to record at least 10 dunks during the 2019-20 season.


The Jumper

While a prolific scorer over his first two seasons for Radford, Jones wasn’t much of a 3-point shooter; he shot just 28 percent on looks from downtown (3.1 3PA per game). As a junior, Jones experienced only a modest jump in his 3-point attempt rate: 25.7 percent. However, there was a tremendous spike in his — to burrow a Football Outsiders term — success rate.

Jones is a shot-creator; the vast majority of his field goals this season came unassisted, including 50 percent of his 3-pointers. Jones produced monster efficiency numbers on spot-up looks this year, which should serve him well playing with Johnson, a gifted table-setter.

According to Synergy Sports, Jones posted an effective shooting rate of 64.6 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts this season — good for No. 9 in the Big South (40+ FGA).

When he gets his feet set, Jones can display comically good shooting range, too. (I reached out to the magnificent Fifth Factor Plots on Twitter to see if I could get a distance for this shot. Using the program ImageJ, Fifth Factor informed me that this jumper from Jones came ~33 feet away from the basket. Whew.)

(Keep an eye on the clock: Jones shoots the ball here with eight seconds remaining the possession. And he made it look easy, from absolutely silly range.)


Movement Shooting

It’ll be interesting to see how Louisville utilizes Jones off the basketball — in an effort to reproduce the movement shooting of Nwora and McMahon. He’s the most obvious candidate on next season’s roster to target in this regard.

It’s clear that Jones will have the basketball in his hands a lot at Louisville; however, he started plenty of possessions for Radford this season playing off the basketball, too, next to Travis Fields Jr.

Jones is a combo guard, capable of toggling between offensive engine and secondary/late-clock assassin. That makes for a nice fit next to Johnson, who hasn’t shown much in terms of spot-up/off-screen shooting (21.7 3P%) up to this point in his career, yet.

Johnson’s form is sound, though: high release, good balance and wrist snap. If he returns for his sophomore season with a reliable 3-ball, Johnson locks up first-round NBA Draft pick status.

Back to Jones: this is a really tough shot to hit after the curl — Charles Falden of Winthrop is in his back pocket. Still, Jones comes off the pindown to a hard two-foot jump stop and swings the ball through — high and quickly — which creates the necessary space.

Jones is quick off the ground — one dribble and then he explodes vertically. Look at how much space he has over the flat-footed Falden.

When coming off screens, Jones shoots an easy basketball. Louisville ran a lot of good stuff to generate open looks for both McMahon and Nwora. There’s untapped potential here for Jones.


1-2 Combinations: Johnson + Jones

There are plenty of ways for Louisville to involve Jones and Johnson as a direct combination on offense, including some really simple stuff from Mack’s playbook.

One of the basic actions Louisville and Mack used for McMahon was a 1-2 slip-screen in early offense. This look generated some nice offense two seasons ago with Christen Cunningham, a smooth pick-and-roll engine, running the offense.

From this 1-4 low set: McMahon starts down on the block, and he lifts hard as if to set a screen; however, he slips out at the last second for a 3-point look.

Check out how much that simple slip throws off Indiana’s defense; the Hoosiers are immediately in scramble mode due to McMahon’s gravity as a shooter.

With two like-sized players involved, some teams will try to switch this action; however, the slip works as an effective counterpunch. If there’s any miscommunication between the on-ball defender and the help man, then it creates a gap to the basket or a spot-up 3.

Here’s another glance. Tennessee was an excellent defensive outfit last season, and Perry doesn’t possess the same off-dribble juice as Cunningham or Johnson; the Vols aren’t fooled. But even then, McMahon still gets into space and capitalizes on good look from deep.

Louisville would also utilize this same concept, but with Nwora as the slip man. Instead of using McMahon or Nwora as the slip man, though, it could be Jones next season.

This is where Johnson can really put much pressure on a defense. Johnson isn’t a super twitchy ball-handler, but his handle is functional, and he plays with a proclivity to get to the rim. (He’s also a willing passer, which helps, too.)

According to Bart Torvik, over 53 percent of Johnson’s field goal attempts last season (77 of 144 FGA) registered as “close 2-pointers.” Johnson shot above 58 percent on those looks, with close to 70 percent of the makes coming unassisted.

It’s a little surprising that NC State — a 1-4 switch team — doesn’t actually switch on this possession. Braxton Beverly hesitates on the exchange with CJ Bryce. It’s enough to bend the defense. All of a sudden, there’s a wide-open lane; Johnson gets two feet in the paint and finishes strongly over the excellent DJ Funderburk.

(Markell Johnson is also horribly out of position on defense as Samuell Williamson cuts backdoor.)


Iso Scoring: A one-man job

On possessions when these perimeter-oriented actions are covered up, Jones still has the ability to isolate on the wing and hunt for points. Jones can unlock a defense with a bevy of triple-threat jabs, shot fakes and spins, before launching into his dribble.

Jones is skilled with the basketball, and he has a variety of different moves, including a loopy crossover that he uses to change speeds. He lulls defenders with his handle, then snaps the ball in a direction and attacks downhill.

These maneuvers are purposeful — probing tactics that keep defenders off balance and make Jones a magnet for contact. Jones drew 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes, according to KenPom: No. 43 nationally among Division I players.

(There’s that between-the-legs step-back dribble, again.)

According to Synergy, Jones scored 0.89 points per possession (43.8 eFG%) out of isolation this season. The Cincinnati product averaged nearly three points per game out of isolation; Jones was one of 20 Division I players to finish the 2019-20 campaign with 90+ iso possessions, too.

This is one of those possessions where Jones plays bigger, working against the 6-foot-7 Chandler Vaudrin. Jones loves these little isolated side-post clearouts.

The Cards don’t run a lot of straight isolation ball, but from their horns sets, they would, at times, look to play through Nwora — isolate from the slot or run a middle ball screen.

Mack could station Jones at the elbow area next season (Duke did this some with Tre Jones), and get to these same looks with even more of an off-dribble threat handling the ball.

Louisville would also look to post up Nwora, on occasion. In the same vein, some of those possessions could go to Jones next season, too.

With nearly 96 percent of his 2-point field goals this season unassisted, Jones is the definition of a bucket-getter, fearless of contact and skillful while playing in a crowd.

If Jones catches a defender giving him too much space, well, he can pull-up from distance. Jones scored 3.7 points per game (a top-50 number nationally) on off-dribble jump shots (44.2 eFG%) during the 2019-20 season.


First Step: Carlik Jones

Even with all of his different tricks, Jones can harness a solid first step, which gives him a good foundation to work off of in one-on-one situations. Jones isn’t a track star, but if teams guard him too tightly or give him an angle, then he’s gone. Factor that in with his ability to drive in either direction, and Jones makes for a tough cover; his left hand is really strong.

It’s no small task to force Jones into help coverages or run off the line.

In the above clip, Jones smokes Chase Claxton — a rangy 6-foot-7 defender (2.6 percent block rate) — baseline for the two-handed chin-up on the rim.

According to Synergy, Jones had an effective shooting rate of 52.1 percent on spot-up dribble jumpers this season. And on spot-up looks when Jones drove to the basket, he shot 66.7 percent — scoring 1.36 points per possession. These are monster numbers.

Jones can also use these interior forays to help change sides of the floor, which is a big boon for half-court facilitation.


Pick-and-Roll Play-making: David Johnson

Louisville runs one of the more intricate half-court offenses, at least in the ACC. Even with simple pick-and-roll design, Louisville will mix in some roll-replace action or a screen-the-screener concept to the flow. This is one of the areas where Johnson (6.9 assists per 40 minutes) can take a leap next season: pick-and-roll decision-making.

Here’s a look at Louisville’s roll/replace action with Nwora lifting on the weak side as Williams dives hard to the rim. This is a nice counter to Virginia’s hard ball-screen hedge. Johnson threads a gorgeous pass, playing Williams into space for a quick finish, before Mamadi Diakite (2.2 blocks per 40 minutes) can recover and contest.

Get ready to see more of going forward. Louisville scored 1.1 points per pick-and-roll possession this season when Johnson passed the ball to someone who finished the play, a top-50 number nationally (90+ possessions).

Johnson was turnover-prone (25.4 percent TOV rate) while forcing his way into more playing time as a freshman. But he’s an unselfish player, with a combination of vision and strength that allows him to pick out weak-side shooters.

At 6-foot-5, Johnson can survey and see over the top of his opponents — even when he’s blitzed or trapped off a ball screen.

(Look at that heady flare screen from Sutton to free Nwora up. Long live the #SuttonHive.)

Johnson shot 44 percent out of the pick-and-roll last season, too, with plenty of those finishes coming at the rim. He and Williams should pair as an excellent screen-roll combination, especially as his game expands.

Spread 1-5 pick-and-roll, with roll/replace action, will allow Johnson to get into the paint. If teams trap, then Jones is a sensational release valve.

Drag It Out

One of the ways Louisville hunts for early offense is a drag ball screen in transition. Once again, they will have the pieces to be dynamic in this action. Johnson and Jones are both excellent pick-and-roll guards. Working in concert with that, Malik Williams has quick feet and a good motor.

The guards can look to bully their way to the rim or hit Williams with lob/drop passes for high-percentage finishes. Over the last two seasons, Williams shot over 64 percent at the rim, with 25 dunks.

According to Synergy, as a junior, Williams shot 80 percent after rolling or slipping to the basket. The Cards will lean on this next season.

Jones has also proven rather adept with knowing how to ignite offense out of a drag screen. Full-court dribble into a seamless split, then a finish through contact and over a contest from Kyrin Galloway (8.5 percent block rate) is no joke.

Louisville will also deploy a double drag screen concept, with another player (usually Nwora) joining the 5 to set a dual transition ball screen. Jones and Williamson could both work in that role next season. Quinn Slazinski brings some stretch to the frontcourt — he, too, could also work in that drag-pop concept.

Samuell Williamson has real closeout-beater potential, especially if he can up his 3-point stroke (just 27 total 3PA this season). As a freshman, he also had a tendency to get sped up and turn the ball over in these situations. Williamson would either shuffle his feet on a travel before the drive, or over-dribble on the drive and commit an offensive foul.

However, he showed some good flashes, too. Williamson — 67.6 FG% at the rim (9 dunks), 41.2 FG% on long 2PA — could evolve into a smooth secondary weapon on offense. Here, Williamson finds a pull-up jumper out of Louisville’s Buckeye action.

Williamson shot 36.4 percent on off-dribble jumper this season, per Synergy.


Securing The Bag/Drag: Counter vs. Switch Coverages

One of my favorite double drag uses from Louisville came against Florida State this season — with a clever wrinkle from Mack.

Louisville cooked up a nice action to combat Florida State’s 1-5 switch scheme. From a small-ball look (no true 5 on the floor), Williamson and Sutton set the double drag; McMahon and Nwora, two knockdown shooters, are spaced to the corners.

Johnson dribbles off the drag, but instead of having one screener pop and the other roll, Williamson and Sutton combine to set staggered pindowns for McMahon. FSU was solid communicating switches this year, but this labyrinth of screens is too much to navigate.

This concept wasn’t just a one-time rollout, though. After an install (Louisville had just one day off before this game), the Cards went to this multiple times.

Here’s that look again — this time with Enoch in the game. MJ Walker initiates an early switch with Devin Vassell onto Johnson. With Walker forcing Johnson away from second screen, Enoch bails out to set the second pindown for McMahon.

Considering his build (260 pounds), Raiquan Gray (3.2 percent steal rate) is an incredibly nimble defender; however, he lost his help responsibilities against Johnson when McMahon curled Enoch’s screen. Patrick Williams, matched with Nwora, is worried about leaving him open in the corner for an easy slash-and-kick 3-ball.

All of this together creates a lane for Johnson to get to the rim for a layup.

(Trent Forrest is a defensive mad man and he almost recovered in time to block this shot at the rim. It’s the only reason this isn’t an uncontested bucket.)

One more time: on this possession, though, Johnson forces the switch with FSU’s center, 7-foot-1 Balsa Koprivica. Koprivica did pretty well this season, all things considered, when asked to stay in front of opposing guards after a switch. However, not every opponent has a downhill driver like Johnson.

Once again, Williams hesitates to leave Nwora, the corner shooter, as Johnson glides around Koprivica, and uses the rim for protection on a nifty reverse score.


Quick Comparison, Room For Growth

With Cunningham running the show in 2018-19, Louisville ball handlers scored 0.87 points per pick-and-roll possession (46.8 eFG%), according to Synergy — No. 37 nationally. Out of the pick-and-roll, Louisville ball handlers averaged 7.4 points per game. CC accounted for just over half (145) of those used ball-handler possessions, too; he shot just under 53 percent on those looks and scored 0.97 points per possession.

When Cunningham passed to someone else out of the pick-and-roll who finished the possessions, the Cards scored 1.06 points per possession, which ranked 23rd nationally (200+ possessions).

Here’s another screen-the-screener look with Sutton screening for Enoch, who launches into the pick-and-pop with Cunningham.

As a team, that overall efficiency number (predictably) dropped in the 2019-20 campaign. Louisville ball handlers scored 0.74 points per pick-and-roll possession (46.2 eFG%), according to Synergy — 5.9 points per game.

While the effective shooting number remained comparable, Louisville guards turned the ball over far more frequently. According to Synergy, Louisville turned the ball over on 24.5 percent of its ball-handler pick-and-roll possessions — up from 18 percent in the 2018-19 season.

Perry was the main culprit (32.4 percent TOV rate), but Johnson (24.1 percent) and Kimble (28.8 percent) struggled, too. Johnson needs to produced a stronger turnover-to-foul drawn ratio next season.


PNR Scoring: Carlik Jones + Buckeye Action

Of course, this is one of the main areas where Jones will prove to be a major asset. In each of the last two seasons, Jones has proven himself as an efficient, high-usage screen-roll engine.

During his sophomore year, Jones scored 0.84 points per pick-and-roll possession (46.8 eFG%), according to Synergy. That year, Campbell scoring machine Chris Clemons, now with the Houston Rockets, led the Big South with 6.6 pick-and-roll points per game. Jones ranked fourth in the conference at 5.4 points per game.

As a junior, though, Jones upped his game, in a big way. Jones scored 0.97 points per pick-and-roll possession (50.9 eFG%), which ranked No. 5 nationally (200+ possessions), just behind Malachi Flynn (1.06) and ahead of Markus Howard (0.95), another pull-up shooting robot.

Jones cut his turnover rate out of the pick-and-roll — down to 12.5 percent — while drastically improving his ability to draw contact. Of the 47 players in Synergy’s database that used at least 200 pick-and-roll possessions this season, Jones was one of only 10 to draw a shooting foul on at least 12 percent of his possessions.

(NC State’s Markell Johnson, who loves his pull-up jumper, ranked last out of that group of 47: 2.9 percent).

When Jones runs a ball screen, though, he’s almost equally as likely to use to possession as he is to pass out of the action. It’s an almost 50-50 split between pass/use (shoot, TOV, fouled. Over the last two seasons, Jones is credit with 432 pick-and-roll pass possessions, per Synergy. In terms of volume, that’s huge. And in terms of efficiency, those plays were quite successful: 1.09 points per possession.

During the 2019-20 season, Jones, as a passer, ranked 11th nationally in pick-and-roll efficiency, just ahead of guys like Saben Lee, Ashton Hagans and Kihei Clark. This is how you generate an eye-popping 5.8 assists per 40 minutes average for your career, with over 3,200 minutes of total playing time.

Jones is really talented with that snake maneuver, too: driving the ball back against the direction of the screener.

It will also be interesting to see how Louisville utilizes Jones in one of its baseline half-court sets: Buckeye action. The Cards use this set to get into a variety of different looks, which can include Spain action and side ball screens.

Many of these possessions result in Louisville going to its continuity ball screen (CBS) offense. In the above clip, Perry dribbles off a ball screen from Williams and into a handoff exchange with Johnson. Sutton sprints to set a screen, then slips out. Williams cycles through and quickly follows Sutton with a screen for DJ.

Here’s that look again — with a few tweaks. Instead of going into ball-screen action with Williams, McMahon passes it off and spaces to the corner. Williams is the one who rotates the ball to the other side of the floor. He follows his pass to Kimble by immediately running over to screen/slip. Kimble eyes an opening and throws a lob pass to Williams, which leads him in for a layup.

Here’s an assortment of those looks from the team’s opener against Miami. There could be plenty of half-court pick-and-roll creation for Jones next season out of these CBS looks.

Jones could also be used in a role similar to Sutton, when Louisville would look to pitch the ball back to Sutton and the corner and let him attack against the grain. If he gets more decisive with the basketball, Williamson can work well in this role, too.

Minlend drew 5.1 fouls per 40 minutes this season, while also shooting 58 percent around the rim. He could have utility in this capacity as well.


Defense + Transition Game

Jones built his reputation on the offensive side of the floor, but he’s mostly fine defensively as well. He’s observant and alert as a help defender; that should translate nicely into Mack’s Pack Line approach on defense.

Under Mack, Louisville has shown a willingness to switch some — thanks to the versatility and tenacity of Sutton, primarily. The Cards, however, could try that some next season, too. Johnson is big for a point guard, and Williams has quick feet and tremendous defensive aptitude at center.

Williams, however, is more likely to showcase his defensive mobility via ball-screen hedges and recovery efforts.

Williamson is long and toolsy; he can guard four different positions in college. Slazinski played just 45 minutes this season, but in a February win over Virginia Tech, he switched onto smaller opponents during a few possessions.

In theory, Jones could work into this as well. He switched some last season at Radford, showing a toughness when matched with a larger opponent. However, that approach is mostly just an occasional match-up move.

Jones averaged 1.7 steals per 40 minutes during his career at Radford; in the more conservative Pack Line, though, that number will likely drop. But he’s a sturdy rebounder (16.1 percent), which he uses to unlock some nifty grab-and-go potential.

Jones was one of 23 players, 6-foot-2 or shorter, this season to post a defensive rebound rate of at least 15 percent.

Again, it’s not hard to envision Jones pushing the ball after his own rebound and going right into Louisville’s drag pick-and-roll game, without the help of an outlet pass.


Going Forward

Louisville still has plenty of questions to answer with its frontcourt; there’s just so much leaving the program. Williams and Williamson is a good starting place, though.

Slazinski and the 6-foot-8 Jaylyn Withers, who took a redshirt this season, were big recruits in the 2019 class. The same can be said for Aidan Igiehon, a top-60 prospect in 2019 who saw limited playing time (and struggled) before an injury cut his rookie year short.

Igiehon is raw and still learning the game, which Mack made mention of this week. While speaking with the media, Mack also noted that Louisville could look to land a frontcourt piece via a transfer, but it’s not a necessity.

The Cards need to find secondary shooting options, too. There’s plenty of depth on the wing, but no defined spot-up threats, with the exception of Jones. Williams (57 career 3-pointers), with his ability to space out, could help some as well.

Minlend looks like a nice piece who can put pressure on the rim, but he’s never been much of a catch-and-shoot player. With Johnson and Jones generating open looks, though, perhaps there’s some upside.


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